A group of tenants build in the inner city

tenants buildSelf-build is often assumed to be low-density rural or suburban development, but this project in Islington in North London shows how it can work in a dense inner city neighbourhood. The development was completed in 1995, when standards of energy-efficiency and environmental performance were not as high as currently – which just goes to show how fast things are changi?tg at the moment. However, the scheme is well insulated with cellulose fibre made from recycled newspaper within a timber frame, which is an inherently very sustainable form of construction. The scheme is built using the Segal method of post and beam timber-frame construction devised by the architect Walter Segal in the mid-1960s and subsequently used with great success by many self-build groups. This method is very adaptable, and the members of the self-build group were closely involved in developing the design and building the houses. The buildings can be adapted to changing needs and expectations in the future, which is a necessary feature of any sustainable system. So too is ensuring that residents have an active role in the process so that they understand how the houses work and know how to use and maintain them effectively.

In the 1970s, with the encouragement of the then Two- and three-storey houses.

Labour government, Islington Council in North London bought up many decaying properties with a view to refurbishing them and letting them to needy households at rents they could afford. Due to a lack of financial resources the council resolved to let many of these properties to members of a short-life housing co-operative at peppercorn rents rather than see them remain empty, but when later faced with a critical shortage of affordable accommodation for needy families, the council wanted to take these properties back. However, they could not throw many of the present occupants out on the streets, and so the idea of a self-build scheme as one form of move-on accommodation for these short-stay tenants took shape. Many of these people had been carrying out self-help maintenance and improvements to their dilapidated short-life properties for years, and so it made sense for them to go on and build their own houses. A small housing association was established, a self-build group was recruited, and two council- owned sites were identified.


Some of the self-builders chose to combine their private back gardens into a shared garden.

At this point one of the apparently frequent delays occurred, and they came from unexpected directions. Firstly, Prince Charles took a drive around the East End of London under cover of darkness, and was appalled by what he saw. It was suggested that people building their own homes could help provide good homes at affordable cost. The chief executive of a prominent property company put up a (large) sum of money to develop the legal framework and documents to establish a financial model to fund self- build developments by getting private landowners to make sites available on a deferred payment basis. It was a hugely complicated arrangement, but was attractive to the council because it relied on private money and did not require any public money, which is always in short supply. In the end this initiative failed, and only one or two developments were completed using this model.

So it was back to square one on the funding – and on to the Housing Corporation, who by this time had been persuaded to make funding available for what might be described as ‘social’ self-build schemes. The first social self-build had been sponsored by a local authority, but the by now Conservative government had stopped local authorities funding housing. The Corporation funding was for shared ownership, where the self-builder owns part of the equity or value of the house, for which he or she takes out an individual mortgage, and the remainder of the equity is owned by the housing association, for which they pay a proportion of the normal rent for the property. The equity owned by the self-builder is generally wholly or largely paid for by the ‘sweat equity’, that is the difference between the cost of building the house using unpaid self-help labour and its value on completion. In a high-value area such as Islington, the

FACING PAGE Above: 13 narrow frontage two- and three- storey town bouses with a shared garden. Below: 3 single storey courtyard houses on the site of an unused play area on a council estate. sweat equity can be substantial, whereas it can be difficult to make this arrangement work financially in low-value areas such as the north of England. Shared ownership reduces the cost of living in the house at the outset whilst allowing the self-builder to purchase a greater proportion of the equity, including outright purchase, at some time in the future. It is a very flexible form of tenure. Unfortunately, around this time the original housing association was wound up, and time was lost getting a larger, more established association to take over the scheme, and most importantly, administer the grant from the Housing Corporation.

The sites

Meanwhile, the self-builders had been working with the architects to develop the design. This was for 13 narrow-fronted two- and three-storey town houses for one of the sites, where they took their place in the street with Victorian two- and three-storey terraced houses, some of which were beyond the end of their useful life and had been demolished to make way for the new development. The other site was again not untypical of urban areas – this time an unused area within a council estate. It had originally been designated as the mandatory play area required for a development of council flats. It is surprising how many small redundant sites exist within urban areas. One local authority recently identified space for over 400 houses on such sites in their area, which they are now developing with new houses.

The Islington play area was a tarmac yard surrounded by a 2m-high wall – and nothing else except a drain grating in one corner. It’s astonishing that so little care and thought could go into creating an environment for living. The yard was not overlooked, and so the local youth could get up to all sorts of mischief and residents could dump unwanted junk, all without fear of discovery. The proposal was to build three bungalows, each looking into their own small courtyard garden within the surrounding perimeter wall.

The Segal Method

Three basic house types were designed: a two-storey town house with two bedrooms, a three-storey town house with three bedrooms, and courtyard bungalows with two bedrooms. The buildings were all timber-framed and based on the so-called Segal Method of post and beam construction. This form of construction was devised by the architect Walter Segal in the mid 1960s, and is based on the idea of combining readily available, standard building materials (originally including wood-wool slabs and plasterboard) within a post and beam timber frame using dry fixing methods such as bolts and screws. The building is laid out on a modular grid – based on the stock sizes of the materials – to avoid cutting and waste. The method is devised to be economical, and quick and relatively straightforward to construct.


The external and internal walls are not loadbearing, as the timber frame carries the weight of the building. This means that one can place doors and windows in any position on the outside of the building and can position walls anywhere you like on any floor on the inside. Importantly it also means that you can change your mind as you go along. You can stand in the part-completed building, see which way has the view and which direction the sun is coming from, and adapt the layout to suit. This can be very useful for self-builders, who often find visualizing the spaces inside and outside of buildings difficult from the drawings used by architects and builders to communicate the form of buildings. The separation of frame and infill means that the houses can be relatively easily adapted to changing needs and expectations in the future. This flexibility is a necessary part of any sustainable approach to house design in my view, as it ensures a long useful life for buildings, yet flexibility is not generally considered important in house design in Britain.


The self-builders embraced the idea of freedom of layout and openings with enthusiasm, and soon no two houses were the same. The self-builders also had the choice of materials, fittings and colours inside. In my view, this ability to be involved in the design of one’s own home is a necessary element in a sustainable approach to housing. The role of people in sustainable development was stressed at the Rio summit in 1992, yet, like flexibility, participation remains tokenistic generally in thinking about housing in the UK. The process of designing the houses kept up the self-builders’ commitment through the planning stages whilst the finances were put in place, and during the hard slog of building on site.

The layouts of the two sites demonstrate contrasting approaches to high-density development. One was of tall narrow houses with back gardens, many of which the self-builders decided to combine into one larger communal garden, with each house having a small private patio immediately next to the house. The three-storey houses also had a balcony at the back opening off the first-floor living-room. The other site was developed with low L-shaped houses planned around a small but completely private courtyard.

The party walls

The construction incorporated a high level of insulation to walls, ground floors and roofs provided by cellulose fibre insulation made from recycled paper. The two- and three-storey terraced houses have concrete block party walls intended to provide good sound and fire separation between the houses. Special blocks were used, designed to be laid dry without mortar, to make block-laying a job that could be undertaken by the self-builders rather than having to employ skilled masons. Steel reinforcing rods were placed through the hollow cores of the blocks, which were then filled with concrete to make a strong and solid wall. Unfortunately this form of construction did not prove to have as good sound insulation as was hoped, and one or two self-builders complained that they could hear what was going on next door. It seems that the walls were acting as a large drum, transmitting structure-borne sound to the adjoining house. I have worked on a great many timber-frame houses, and not once have I experienced a problem with sound transmission through a party wall – which is not what most people would expect.

The cladding

The buildings are largely clad in green oak (oak that has not been seasoned – either naturally under cover for a year, or in a kiln in a matter of a day or so). It is a relatively plentiful and cheap, durable, and does not require an applied finish and is therefore maintenance- free. It weathers on the building to a grey colour, but does have a tendency to twist and warp as it dries out. This lends a certain rustic quality to the building, but you may find that you have to replace one or two boards that are too twisted to stay in place.


Most of the self-builders were working throughout the construction period, but they did employ a site manager who was able to supervise a group of carpentry trainees from a local training centre. The trainees installed staircases and proved to be a useful extra resource. For their part, opportunities to work on-site are limited, and they obtained site experience in a supportive environment.


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